I’ve become completely fascinated with Xaat Kíl. This is the traditional language of the Haida people, whose territories stretch from the islands of Haida Gwaii up the coast to Alaska.
In this moment, there are fewer than fifty fluent speakers remaining, and none of them are younger than seventy.
Saving this language is not easy. It’s an extremely complex language isolate, with rigourous pronunciations – oh, yeah, and it has never, ever been written down. The comprehensive glossary, for thousands of years, has been passed down orally, with no scripts or alphabets to work from. When Residential Schools became mandatory in Canada, Indigenous people were brutally punished for speaking their own language or practicing their own traditions, which almost cost them their entire way of life along with their language.
Fortunately, there is an incredible effort to record and preserve Xaat Kíl, as well as to pass it on to younger generations of Haida and non-Haida alike. The Skidegate Haida Immersion Program is one of them, meeting weekly with Haida elders to hash out proper spelling, pronunciation, translations, and to help distinguish between the three remaining dialects (from an estimated 20+; one dialect for each Haida settlement that existed). I had the chance to visit S.H.I.P. with our class earlier in the week, and I plan to attend as often as I can.
If you’re more of a sucker for scientific knowledge rather than the social aspect of language loss, there’s something for you as well. When geologists and environmental historians aren’t entirely sure on specific features of the geographical record, they are in some cases able to look to the Haida for answers. Several words, and even some traditional mythologies, having been passed down for millenia, exist specifically to describe some of these features, many of which haven’t been around in a thousand years themselves. One of our guest speakers told us of a lake that would form on Moresby Island at low tide. This lake hasn’t existed since the melting of the ice in the most recent Ice Age, which raised the sea levels well above what they have been in any recent history. Geological and archaeological records can hypothesize about its existence – but the Haida language has a word for that lake when it existed, providing some alarming evidence for just how long these people have lived in Haida Gwaii. One of the Haida elders here in Skidegate is working to ‘marry the geographical language to Haida myth’ just like this. In doing so, he is carefully weaving together technical scientific records with anthropological and linguistic features of Haida culture.
When we lose a language, we lose value in our human history. We neglect our very ancestry and deny ourselves knowledge. We take one step further into the robotic automatonic, and one further from our humanity.
Why not unite the two?! Futuristic technologies already in existence provide incredible power to get back in touch with our humanity. The Haida Language blog is a great resource for learning tough pronunciations, as is Haida Language.org. And for you iPhone junkies, there’s even a Haida app to help you out.
Kil ḵaayd, the title of this post, means (roughly) “to leave, because you don’t like what is being said.” It’s a beautiful phrase with no equivalent in English, and in learning it we are empowered to express a whole new emotion! It literally expands our expressive capacity. I think kil ḵaayd is something we all do a little too often, when things get uncomfortable, or when what you hear challenges what you believe. It’s time to stay in the room, and listen. It’s always worth it to learn something.